Iran has begun a new plan to expel illegal Afghan workers from the country. Officials have said that the plan will help solve the country's unemployment problem. Press reports say the first phase of the plan -- to identify illegal workers -- began on October 28. Iran has hosted more than 2 million refugees from Afghanistan for more than three decades. But since the fall of the Taliban, Iranian officials have repeatedly said that it is time for Afghans to return home.
PRAGUE, November 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The repatriation plan comes amid increased restrictions aimed at forcing Afghans in Iran to return to their country.
Iranian officials say that along with the 960,000 Afghans who are registered as refugees in Iran, between 1-2 million Afghans are in the country illegally.
Few Legal Afghans
According to Iran, only some 1,000 Afghans living in Iran have a valid work permit. The rest are considered illegal workers.
Under the new initiative, those Afghans workers who are illegally residing in Iran will be deported. Iranian employers will face fines if they don't lay off illegal workers.
Illegal Afghans workers that have a valid residence permit will not be expelled from Iran. They will, however, not be allowed to work. But their employers could apply for six-month work permits for three sectors: brick-making plants, construction, and agriculture.
Mohammad Youssef Etebar is the first consul at the Afghan Embassy in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashad, which has a large Afghan population. He tells RFE/RL that Iranian officials have begun screening for illegal Afghan workers.
"Through my contacts with [Iranian] officials I know that for now there is no problem for refugees with documents," he said. "But assessments have begun on those who don't have documents in factories, workplaces, or with their employers. We have to wait and see the results."
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says it is monitoring the situation. Astrid van Genderen, the UNHCR's spokesperson in Geneva, told RFE/RL that her agency wants to ensure that refugees are not among those who are expelled.
"We are, of course, concerned about the people who are refugees and who cannot, at this stage, return to Afghanistan," he said. "Regarding illegal workers who are not refugees, it's very difficult for UNHCR -- it's not our mandate, we cannot control it -- it's a sovereign action [by] a government. But over the past few years when such actions happened, we always monitored if there were no refugees or people who sought asylum and we've not come across such cases."
Iranian officials say Afghan workers are taking job opportunities away from Iranians. They claim the new initiative will revive some 300,000-400,000 jobs that are currently held by Afghans. Iran's official unemployment rate is about 10 percent. But the real rate is thought to be at least 20 percent.
Many Afghans living in Iran resort to hard labor in construction and at factories to support their families. Afghans and some Iranian observers say Afghans tend to be paid less and Iranian workers are not willing to take those jobs with the same wages.
An Afghan woman living in Iran who wanted to remain anonymous told RFE/RL that many of the illegal workers are Afghans who had previously returned to Afghanistan.
Afghans Returning To Iran
"They say that we couldn't stay there; there was no education, our children were becoming illiterate, there was no security, and the houses are expensive," she said. "These are people who lived in Iran for some 20 years -- they didn't have a house there. So they were forced to return to Iran with lots of problems. They're here [illegally]. I don't know what will be the fate of this generation that is wandering here. Who is responsible?"
She says Afghans living in Iran are facing increasing pressure, including educational restrictions for their children. Nevertheless she says few Afghans are willing to return to their home country.
The UN agency says that while more than 1.5 million Afghans have returned home since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the number of those returning voluntarily has almost dried up.
UNHCR's van Genderen says there are different reasons why Afghans living in Iran do not want to return home.
The Time Is Not Right For Returning
"They come either from areas where security is not right or they come from areas where the economy has not properly developed and it's very, very difficult to reintegrate into the community and into the labor market," he said. "There are also other Afghans who lived all their life in Iran and have substantially contributed to the economy there; there are Afghans that were even born in Iran."
Etebar, the chief Afghan consul, says neighboring countries should be patient until the time is right for Afghans to return home.
"We are still facing many problems with respect to the economy, reconstruction, and providing them with jobs and a means of making a living," he said. "Our request and our expectation is that countries cooperate as they did in the past and be patient until the time when we can remove all the problems in Afghanistan."
Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi urged the international community last month (on October 11) to live up to its promise of investing in Afghanistan's reconstruction, which he said would enhance the prospects for higher return figures.
The Iranian press has reported that by the end of the Iranian year, on March 20, 2007, some 500,000 Afghans are due to be expelled from Iran.
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